A Question on the Application of Scripture
A question dropped in the “Ask the Pastor” box a few weeks back (sorry for the late response) that asked: All Scripture is contained in the OT & NT, so how do we as Christians apply the Bible to current events seeing some have tried to change past history and some have used it to support their own views?
This is a great question because the Scriptures aren’t only to be read, and they’re not only to be understood, they’re to be applied to our lives as well. Historically, the Reformed have argued that the Bible is the only infallible RULE of faith and life. That word “rule” in Latin (which the Reformers would have known and written in) is the word regula, which means “ruler, rod, bar, basic principle, rule.” In other words, the Bible is what we use to measure our faith and life, to make sure we’re going straight.
So if the Bible regulates our faith and life, that means we need to be able to understand it and apply its principles properly. How do we do that? Well first we need to understand that the Bible is the word of God, breathed out by God to the human authors of Scripture. As such, Scripture is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and holy. It is true in all it says and does not lead astray on any topic to which it speaks.
The second part is to understand the Bible, this is what is called hermeneutics, a fancy word that means the art and science of proper interpretation. Throughout the history of the Church, there have been some interesting interpretive schools of thought, but the best method to interpret the Bible is using the Grammatical-Historical method. This is the method of trying to interpret the words of Scripture according to proper grammar and the proper historical context. This is why it’s much preferable to get an English translation that attempts to translate in as “literal” a way as possible. To that end, I would highly recommend the New King James Version (NKJV) or the English Standard Version (ESV) for study. Also invest in a good study Bible so you can get a lot of the historical context and background information that will help you in properly understanding the Bible. Again, I would recommend the Reformation Study Bible by Ligonier Ministries. It comes in both NKJV and ESV and it comes from a conservative, confessional, Reformed perspective. Another good study Bible is the ESV Study Bible by Crossway. But a good general rule of thumb for interpretation is if you come up with an interpretation of Scripture that would be completely foreign to the original audience of the Bible, then you’re probably way off base.
Another thing to consider in rightly understanding the Bible is context. When you’re trying to understand a verse of the Bible, the context of the verse is vitally important. There’s a saying that goes “A text without context is just a pretext.” In other words, you can pull any verse of the Bible out of context to make it mean nearly anything you want it to mean.
When considering context, think of expanding circles of context, like the rings on a dartboard. The smallest ring would be the immediate context of the verse, such as the immediate sentence or sentences that surround the verse. Then expanding outward you have: (1) Sentence; (2) paragraph; (3) chapter; (4) book of the Bible; (5) testament (OT or NT); (6) the Bible as a whole.
Here’s an example using John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” It’s not a hard sentence to understand. You have a subject (Jesus) and a predicate (He wept). Now when you look at the surrounding context, you see that Jesus wept because Lazarus was dead and his sisters, Martha and Mary were also sad. Expanding out to the chapter, this is John 11, in which Jesus gives the “I am the resurrection and the life” statement and raises Lazarus from the dead. When considered from the Gospel of John, Jesus weeping shows His humanity and that He empathized with the sisters and was angry at the effects of sin and the fall, but that He was going to raise him from the dead to prove, yet again, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. From the context of the NT, the Gospel of John (all the Gospels) tell the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is important because the rest of the NT explains the importance of who and what Jesus did. Finally, looking at the Bible as a whole, we see this is the working out of God’s Redemptive-Historical (R-H) plans. Jesus comes in the fullness of time to fulfill the OT types and shadows and inaugurate the Kingdom of God. The redemption he accomplishes (and which the Holy Spirit applies) makes us fit for the Kingdom of God.
So when it comes to application, we need to apply Scripture in a way that’s consistent with our interpretation. The application of John 11:35 isn’t “Jesus wept at death, so we should too.” That may be an application (not a particularly good one), but it’s certainly not the best application. When we know John’s purpose in writing his Gospel, we can look at a verse like John 11:35 and try to apply it with that purpose in mind. Jesus weeps, He’s human, He truly cares for Mary and Martha. He also weeps because the ravages of the fall have taken a toll on this family that was dear to Him. We see the humanity of Jesus in full display here. John wrote His Gospel so that we would believe Jesus is the Christ, and the Christ is fully divine and fully human. The proper application is to believe the right things about Jesus. He is the the God-Man, the Son of God, the Eternal Word who became flesh. The Messiah who came to save us from our sins and calls on us to place our complete faith and trust in Him alone for salvation.
In other instances, application is fairly simple. If we see a command in the NT, we should obey it. For example, when Ephesians 4:29 says “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification,” this isn’t too hard to apply. We should be careful in what we say. Our speech shouldn’t mimic the world with its corruption, but rather we should speak words that build up rather than tear down. Commands in the OT are somewhat trickier because we’re in the period of promise, not fulfillment. For example, God’s command to Joshua to conquer the Promised Land and slaughter all of God’s enemies is not something we should “go and do likewise.” Rather, we need to understand that Joshua is prefiguring Jesus Christ and His return in which all His and our enemies will be utterly destroyed. So OT commands need to be filtered through the cross of Jesus Christ. Many commands were made to specific people at specific times and not meant to be universal commands that apply to all circumstances. This of course takes great care and wisdom, but the good news is that God promises to give wisdom to those who ask.